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The commercial real estate downturn ripped the business life out of John Smelser.

He owned several buildings in the Sarasota-Bradenton market, and he leased space to a variety of tenants. Everything from warehouse to industrial to office. But the recession, he says, forced him to cut rents by up to 70% — when he could find tenants. “It was real bad,” he says. “I had to reinvent myself and get into something more profitable.”

Smelser found his answer in an unlikely place: Plastic injection mold manufacturing.

He co-founded a business, Delaney Manufacturing, in 2008 with business partner John Gilmour, who had been in plastics and manufacturing for 25 years. Gilmour was a plant manager at Kerr Plastics in Sarasota, where he oversaw a 100,000-square-foot operation with nearly 200 employees.

Named after Smelser's daughter, Delaney Smelser, the company has also latched onto a growing niche. It makes stuff for inventors. The quirkier, the better. The list ranges from a sock remover to a device that helps people in wheelchairs move the wheels smoother. “We get people from all over the country,” says Smelser.

Annual sales at the six-employee firm are well more than $1 million, Smelser says, and are up 35% in 2014 so far over 2013. The firm, which also does plastic injection molding for business-to-business clients, in addition to inventors, has at least two job openings. “It's been exploding,” he says. “The rest of this year and next year will be even better.”

Delaney Manufacturing leases a 7,500-square-foot facility in an industrial park off Fruitville Road, east of Interstate 75. The company has more than $300,000 worth of equipment and machinery there, including a 3D printer it recently bought for $25,000. “We are a manufacturing company,” says Smelser, “not an inventor consulting company.”

Yet inventors from all fields have found Delaney, through word of mouth and Web referrals. Most of the work starts with an inventor sending an email that starts with some version of “I have an idea...” Says Smelser: “They can and literally do come in with something on the back of a napkin.”

Delaney Manufacturing will turn the napkin sketch into a 3D design, then a plastic mold, then a prototype and finally a line of products. The firm also does product packaging and ships the goods to the client. Smelser considered getting into product fulfillment, so he could ship directly to end-users. But he decided that was too costly and complicated.

The deluge of business opportunities is Delaney Manufacturing's primary challenge. For starters, the firm has more than 25 ongoing projects to keep up with. Beyond that, Smelser hears from inventors and hopefuls multiple times a week about ideas.

Smelser says some ideas are a little more out there than others. But he's careful to not outright reject clients. Not because he needs the business but because he doesn't want to crush a dream. “We try not to judge the inventions,” he says. “They could have the next pet rock.”

Dream Makers
Delaney Manufacturing, a Sarasota-based plastic mold injection firm, has manufactured dozens of products for inventors since 2008. Those products have been sold everywhere from Walmart to HSN to Amazon. The product list includes:

The Laptop Butler: A mesh pouch/cup holder designed to protect laptops from spills. Local entrepreneur William Merritt invented the product.

Shove-a-Lugs: A wheelchair attachment that allows someone to use the palms of their hands, rather than grip a thin ring. Invented by a Sarasota occupational therapist.

Bag Bunny: A handle to carry plastic bags from grocery stores. Made from recyclable plastics.

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon


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